May 14, 2013

Maine panel opposes marijuana legalization

Opponents see it as a danger to society and in conflict with federal law, but the plan isn't dead yet.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

A proposal to legalize and tax marijuana in Maine failed to win support from a legislative committee Tuesday.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-3 against endorsing L.D. 1229, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

Russell and other advocates say that legalizing recreational use of marijuana would bring the existing marijuana trade aboveboard and produce both tax revenue and business income.

But several committee members noted that the legislation would put Maine in conflict with the federal government. Marijuana -- even medical marijuana -- is illegal under federal law.

The legal status of marijuana possession must be resolved by the federal government, said the committee's House chair, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland.

A legislative vote to legalize marijuana would put Maine on a "collision course" with federal agencies, said Dion, who noted that his vote against the measure will not make him popular in Portland.

In Maine, marijuana is legal for medical use under certain conditions. Marijuana is illegal for any other use, with possession of as much as 2.5 ounces a civil violation, and possession of more a crime.

Russell's bill calls for a statewide referendum on legalizing possession of as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana and six plants. It also proposes a licensing system and structure to collect taxes on marijuana sales.

The committee vote indicates the bill is likely to be rejected by the full Legislature, but with some members supporting it, the proposal can be brought up for votes in the House and Senate.

"This has been an uphill battle the whole time, but reaction from people has been unbelievable. The bill is not dead," Russell said after the committee vote. "There is a lot more support in the Legislature for my bill than was evidenced today."

Her bill would make Maine the third state to legalize marijuana, after Washington and Colorado.

In a related effort, the Portland chapter of the Maine Green Independent Party has collected more than 2,000 petition signatures calling for a referendum on making possession of as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana legal in Portland.

The group has until May 30 to collect at least 1,500 valid signatures. If it succeeds, the City Council can adopt the ordinance or schedule a referendum.

Besides raising legal questions, legalizing marijuana would pose a danger to society, said Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state trooper and a member of the Criminal Justice Committee.

"I have spent my career in law enforcement and public safety," he told other committee members. "I don't see how this is going to help the public become safer. It is not."

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, Rep. Bryan Kaenrath, D-South Portland, and Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, voted in favor of Russell's bill.

In an interview after the vote, Wilson said the three lawmakers will submit a minority report asking the Legislature to put the question to Maine voters.

"This is not an issue that belongs in the Legislature," he said. "People feel strongly about the issue on both sides and rightly should have the opportunity to have their voices heard. The most direct way to do that is a vote on the ballot."

Although no citizens initiative to legalize marijuana is under way, Wilson said he expects there will be one next year.

He said it would be better for the Legislature to craft a ballot question that allows for well-considered regulations than let a citizens petition dictate the rules.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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